The Importance of Masks

I’ve embraced our new mask-wearing present. The evidence is now overwhelming that they slow the spread of disease AND protect the wearer.

I’m immunocompromised. I don’t want COVID-19. I know people who’ve been left with an array of side effects from supposedly mild cases. It is a nasty virus we don’t know nearly enough about. No, thank you.

Since I’m following the law, medical evidence and common sense, and wearing a mask, I figured I’d have fun with it. I’m a fashion obsessive–just check out my alter ego Instagram, Dr Justine Fancy Pants–I had to have stylish masks and what better way to support local designers? Most of us can afford the cost of a mask even if we can’t afford a dress.

I’ve bought masks from local NYC designers/stores Emme, East Village Hats, Junny, Salvage Cloth and Indigo Style Vintage. Check out the masks by local designers in your region. Support them if you can. It makes a world of difference.

My doctor recommends turning your masks inside out after use and putting it in direct sunlight for an hour. If that’s not possible hand wash with gentle detergent or soap. Always dry completely before wearing again. It’s best to have at least two masks.

PS: I haven’t been blogging because I missed the community that used to be here. When this was a regular blog there was a wonderful conversation in response to almost every post. I’m finding blogging here to silence soul sucking.

I miss the community of the old days but I accept those days are gone. The conversations now unfold on social media.

I have found an engaged community on Instagram ready and willing to discuss the intersections of fashion and politics during this pandemic and there are no trolls. I’m loving it. So I post my mini essays there. I will continue to post longer essays here and will soon be updating this site with my fashion research.

I don’t foresee returning to Twitter anytime soon. It was too depressing. I miss those of you I no longer interact with, but my mental health is so much better since I left. So . . .

Photos of me were taken by Scott Westerfeld.

Prescience? Nah.

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A friend recently told me they’d been thinking about my story “Elegy” because it predicted our currently distanced,1 isolated existence, stuck at home, avoiding our neighbours, occasionally venturing out to walk along empty streets. It’s like you knew, they texted me. Your dark fable predicted everything.

I laughed.

So many people knew: epidemiologists, virologists, futurists, novelists like me who’ve been making notes towards their end-of-the-world opus for decades, pretty much anyone who’s done more than ten minutes research on the likely causes of the end of humanity, will have learnt that it was likely to be a pandemic and/or climate change.

I’m not saying this is the end of our species. I’m quite sure we’ll survive this.

As for my story predicting our current lockdown, we’ve also known for a long time that the best way to control a pandemic–before there’s a vaccine–is to isolate. In 1918, more than a century ago, the city of St Louis came out of that flu pandemic with a lower death toll because the authorities implemented a lockdown, much as cities, states and countries are doing across the world now. Meanwhile Philadelphia was hit particularly hard because of its failure to do likewise. Just as we’re seeing dire consequences for regions that didn’t implement social controls quickly enough, or at all, in various parts of the world.

It requires zero prescience to have predicted these outcomes, just a glancing familiarity with humanity’s history. There have been many pandemics. In the fourteenth century it’s estimated that as much as a third of the world’s population died from the Bubonic Plague. European colonisation of the Americas and Australia introduced an array of deadly diseases devastating the indigenous populations there.

This will not be the last pandemic either. There will be more.

My story uses physical disease as a metaphor for depression, for the way it feels like something that consumes us, something over which we have no control, and our fear that it’s contagious.

At least that was my intent. Obviously other people will read it differently, but it’s no kind of prescient, unless you consider it prescient to predict that in the future there will be floods, droughts, and locust plagues. Somewhere all of those are happening right now.

Our planet is vast. Bad shit is always happening somewhere. What’s different about this pandemic, is that for the first time in a century, for the first time in a world with truly global, instantaneous communications, we’re all experiencing this together. But not equally. COVID-19 is, as pandemics always have, hitting the poorest with the least resources hardest.

That’s what we have to change. I want to believe we can.

  1. I’m not calling it socially distancing because, c’mon, it’s physical distancing. Many of us are doing our damnedest, via the internet, to make sure we’re not socially distanced. []

Justine’s Guide to Increasing the Lifetime of Your Clothes

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When I was eleven, my mother gave me my own laundry basket, and taught me how to use the washing machine. I was delighted. Best birthday present ever!

I’ve been doing my own laundry ever since. Few things give me more satisfaction and joy than getting out a really stubborn stain.

No, I’m not joking. I love doing the laundry.

The years I lived in NYC without a washing machine were pure torment.

Here are my tips to longer-lasting clothes:1

Other than underwear:2 wash them less, WAY less. Unless you’ve sweated all over them, clothes don’t need to be washed after every wear.3

I deploy the smell test. Does it pong? If no, don’t wash. If yes, wash immediately!

Jeans should be washed once or twice a year. Tops. AND NEVER IRONED.

I have some coats and jackets that have never been anything other than spot cleaned.

Cold or lukewarm water is better for your clothes and the environment. Ditto with slower spin cycles. Slow good. Fast bad.

Gentle, non-toxic-for-the-environment detergents are best. As an Aussie, I’m a big believer in eucalyptus wash. Anything that smells like eucalyptus is automatically good. It is known.

I swear by Eucalan no-rinse, delicate wash. Yes, I use it for machine washing too. A little goes a long way.

Also, when handwashing? That no-rinse claim? Absolutely true! You don’t have to waste water endlessly rinsing the detergent out. Unfortunately COVID-19 means it is currently unavailable. If anyone knows of a no-rinse alternative, hit me!

Spot clean.

If you spill soy sauce/coffee/oil/whatever, wash that spot as soon as you can, before it can stain. If you’re out (lol) rinse it with cold water in the bathroom pat dry with a paper towel. Never wring! Never rub! Nine times out of ten you’ll rinse out the spill before it becomes a stain.

If there’s still a stain, the internet will tell you how to get it out from whatever the fabric is. I don’t know how I removed stains before the internet. It was a terrible time.

Fabric matters. Silk behaves differently from cotton or the various different blends and synthetics.

Do not despair if you discover an old stain on a favourite piece. While it’s always best to deal with a stain straight away, I’ve gotten some stains out that were years old. Decades old even. And if there was ever a time to finally see if you can nuke that long-standing stain you’ve been hiding with a brooch, that time is now!

Some stains, though, are forever. Le sadness. My new approach is to embroider over the top of them. Visible mending for the win. Do an image search on sashiko. It’s stunning. No, I’m not there yet, but practice makes perfect or, at least, less shit. Now is the perfect time to learn to embroider.

Just because you had to wash that one spot doesn’t mean you have to wash the entire garment.

I handwash (or, if there’s no other way, dry clean) most of my vintage clothes and many of my other clothes too. If I love it I usually handwash it.

I get that most people have neither the time nor inclination for that. Invest in lingerie washing bags. Lately I’ve been recommending guppyfriend washing bags, which reduce fabric shedding. Use the gentle wash cycle, setting it to cold.

I handwash bras. A lingerie washing bag will protect them some, but machine washing will reduce a bra’s lifetime. The elastic dies faster, wires get bent, embroidery and other embellishments unravel.

Handwashing isn’t as hard as people think. It’s mostly soaking and the occasional gentle agitating. The hard work is in the rinsing, and if you can get hold of a good no-rinse handwashing detergent, you take that out of the equation.

Never rub your clothes vigorously. It’s terrible for the fabric. Never wring them either. To dry them, very gently squeeze water out, then roll them in a dry towel and press. It’s astonishing how much water you get out.

If at all possible line dry.

Dryers are the devil. You heard me. They destroy clothes.

Yes, even in your tiny NYC flat, it’s possible to line dry.

Hang clothes to dry in the bathroom. Or in your closet. Just make sure they’re not touching the dry clothes.

Look, I get it. Back when I flat shared, I didn’t hang my clothes to dry in the bathroom. Ewww! Flatmates couldn’t be trusted.

For a long time in the city I was too time and space poor to clean my clothes properly. I would drop them at the laundry. (Never any of my precious clothes or bras.) They would go through the dryer. They would fall apart. It was horrible.

Now I have a wooden folding drying rack. It is joy. Nothing goes in the dryer.

If hanging your clothes up to dry isn’t an option always set the dryer to the lowest heat.

Thus endeth Justine’s guide to longer-lived clothes. You’re welcome!

  1. I understand that some of you are not able-bodied enough to do any of this. I have a chronic illness myself. Some days I don’t have the spoons to get out of bed. []
  2. For some unfathomable reason, some folks rarely wash their bras. Eek! You should probably wash your bra after every 7-10 wears. Obviously this depends on how sweaty you are. []
  3. Yes, I understand that some people are very sweaty. []

Monday’s Post on Friday. What are Days Anyway? Climate Change is Fact.

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This post was supposed to go up Monday after that night’s Q & A. Non-Australians you can click on that link to see what the TV show is or you can accept my brief description: the ABC’s Q & A is a TV panel discussion show, which is usually profoundly enraging, because they insist on having politicians on, who mostly obfuscate, lie, and completely avoid answering questions.

Monday night’s Q & A was the first show of the year, and the topic was Australia’s bushfire crisis, because that is always the topic here because, you know, apocalypse. You can listen to it here.

And here is my rant. Enjoy! I know I have several fans who live for me to rant. Well, here you both go:

Last Monday’s Q & A was excellent. Mostly. But it enraged me and I wrote the rant below and then was so exhausted by my rage and by writing that I neglected to press the publish button before passing out. Having a chronic illness has taught me that things I didn’t used to think of as exhausting now are. Though why I didn’t realise that writing or being furious were exhausting is a total mystery.

Except for the host, Hamish Macdonald, running with that axiom of bad journalism that all views must be respected, even when they’re wrong.

Macdonald chided the jovial US climate change scientist, Michael Mann, for saying that federal NSW Liberal1 senator James Molan’s brain had fallen out of his head, when Molan refused to admit that the science of climate change is settled and that we know that the accelerating catastrophic climate events of the last few decades were caused by humans. Up to and including our bushfire crisis.

James Molan said he was keeping an open mind on the causes of climate change, to a chorus of groans from the studio audience. He also literally said that he was ignoring the evidence. To groans and derisive laughter and that sound people make that basically means “no shit.” The studio audience and everyone else on the planet know that keeping an open mind on climate change is like keeping an open mind on gravity or water being wet. So the expert made the comment about his brain falling out.

At which point Hamish Macdonald said that our terrible, climate-change-disaster-obfuscating government had been elected by millions of Australians, who were in agreement with this government’s views, did that mean the climate change expert was saying everyone who had voted for them’s brains had fallen out?

Frankly, Hamish, I think that’s a more generous explanation than that those voters cared more about getting bigger tax breaks than preventing the apocalypse. But here we are.

Climate change, Hamish, is real and caused by us humans. We know this. You know this! There’s decades of evidence. Every reputable scientist says so. Anyone who denies these facts, including James Molan and the rest of the governing coalition, is functioning as if they have neither knowledge, nor memory, nor literacy, nor the capacity to process facts.

Believing climate change is either not real, or not caused by humans, is equivalent to believing the earth is flat or that Elvis is alive and misgoverning the USA from inside a Donald Trump suit.

Must we humour the people who believe that Elvis is Trump too, Hamish? You know, on account of that is as completely wrong as denying that we humans have irreversibly buggered up this beautiful planet of ours. Why do we have to resist mocking the people with completely wrong views about the causes of our climate crisis? Those views are contributing to how incredibly fast we are making our planet uninhabitable.

Actually the sweet climate scientist, Michael Mann, was more optimistic than me: he thinks we can save this planet.

My pessimism comes from media types like Hamish Macdonald spending more time chiding experts for being “mean” to lying politicians in the pocket of the fossil fuel lobby than on challenging our political leaders for being wrong.

Fact checking, Hamish, that’s your job, not being a politeness monitor. And, honestly, under the circumstances saying Molan’s brain had fallen out was much politer than calling him a corrupt, lying tool of the fossil fuel industry.

The truth is frequently very impolite.

And now I’m exhausted again.

  1. in Australia the Liberal party is a conservative party []

Australia is on Fire

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This screenshot comes from the WA government’s My Fire Watch site. The BBC notes some problems with it. It is, however, a good rough guide to the extent of the fires. For scale Australia is roughly the same size as the USA (minus Hawaii and Alaska).

The front pages of newspapers worldwide are showing the catastrophic fires burning in Australia. I’ve been getting texts and emails and pings from friends overseas, wondering if I’m okay.1

I’m okay. So’s Scott.

Where we live in Sydney is a long way from the fires.2 The air here is worse than it’s ever been, but it’s not as bad as it was at it’s worst in Canberra.3 No one I know has died or lost their home. (Though friends with asthma and other respiratory diseases are having a pretty rough time.)

We’re keeping plenty of clean water on our deck for the parched birdlife to drink and bathe in. At night we’ve been getting exhausted flying foxes resting in our tiny gum trees. It feels good to do something other than just donating money to this GoFundMe for First Nations communities affected by the fire as well as wildlife rescue and the Rural Fire Service.4

I’m not okay.

Nothing scares me more than bushfires.

When I was a kid, we drove from Sydney to Newcastle through a bushfire. We must have been the last ones to get through before they closed the old Pacific Highway. I don’t remember any cars behind us or in front.

I was riding shotgun. My little sister had her head buried in Mum’s lap in the backseat. The smoke built up gradually, slowly hiding the trees. Then out of nowhere flames leapt the road, the smoke became so thick we could barely see. I remember the white lines in the middle of the road and orange coloured smoke.

My dad drove on the white line in the middle of the road, leaning forward, clutching the steering wheel. We passed only one car, on the side of the road, its wheels burning. I couldn’t see if anyone was inside. None of us spoke.

When we finally got through, what felt like hours later, I burst into tears, my sister cheered, my mum laughed and Dad swore. As we drove away cars passed us heading into the fire. I kept screaming at them between sobs to turn around.

I’ve never forgotten. For weeks I had nightmares of running on a never ending road through fire, of people and cars burning, of the whole world burning. Now my nightmares are on our screens daily. Across the entire country. Every state. Every territory.

It’s estimated that half a billion wildlife have been killed.That’s just for my state of New South Wales. It’s likely that some endangered species may now be extinct.

Half a billion.

I keep staring at that number and not comprehending. But I can imagine individual creatures burning. Kangaroos and koalas in flames. I’ve seen the photos. I’ve driven through those flames.

Millions of hectares have burned. People are dead. Homes reduced to ashes. On a terrifying number of days we haven’t been able to go outside without a P2 mask. On the days that are only supposed to be tough for folks who are particularly sensitive, our eyes sting, our noses run, our skin itches.5 It’s draining, sapping away the few spoons I have. Now imagine what it’s like for the elderly, for babies with their tiny new lungs, for those with respiratory illnesses.

Fires have burned out of control in every state. The worst in my home state of NSW, Victoria and South Australia. (The devastation of Kangaroo island is hard to comprehend.) Our fire season started in September. The year before, the fires started in August, but weren’t anywhere near as bad as this bushfire season.

Me on our deck this morning wearing a P2 mask. Normally you can see the city skyline clearly. But not on this over 200 AQI day.

We can’t breathe. Here in Sydney we’ve had our AQI (air quality index) up into the 200s, the unhealthy range, which means you shouldn’t go outside without a mask. Melbourne’s been in the unhealthy range for the last few days. A good AQI is from 0 to 50. In Canberra and surrounding areas, it reached beyond the index, into the thousands, giving Canberra the crown of most polluted city in the world multiple times. A few weeks ago, Sydney had that honour. Yay?

Before this summer I’d never heard of the AQI. Usually Australian cities have some of the cleanest urban air in the world. Not no more. Now I consult an air quality app to decide whether it’s safe to go outside and whether I need to turn the air purifier on.

I’d never owned an air purifier either. I’d never seen orange brown bushfire skies for more than two days in a row. I’d never had to stay indoors because the air was so bad you can’t go outside without a P2 mask. Sydney beaches had never been covered in ash. Apocalypse now . . .

I’ve seen multiple reports, here and overseas, characterise this as “one of” the worst bushfire seasons on record.


It’s the worst.

There’s never been a fire season this catastrophic, this widespread, that’s lasted this long. There are fires in Victoria that are predicted to not burn out for another eight weeks. That means they’ll still be burning in March. September to March is half the year, and there’s no guarantee the fires will stop burning then. Welcome, to the all-year-round bushfire season.

Yes, Australia is the driest country on earth. There are bush fires in summer. Totally normal. The one I drove through as a kid was a dead standard ordinary one. The kind that happen every summer. Not that much damage, relatively easily brought under control. What is happening this summer is off the charts.

We used to be able to predict when fires would happen and prepare for them. Now they’re unpredictable, can happen any time of year, anywhere– even rainforests–and are bigger and travel faster and happen everywhere. Everything is worse.

How did we get here?

A long-running drought + deforestation + high winds + hottest weather on record = BOOM! You can read a more detailed explanation from the Climate Council.

To make matters worse, we have a climate change denying government, who came into power on the back of many horrible election promises, including getting rid of the previous government, the Labor Party’s, carbon tax, which had already started to reduce emissions.

When the conservative party, the Liberal/National Party coalition (LNP), won office they did as promised and scrapped the tax. Our emissions climbed. Per capita we’re the world’s biggest polluters.

When asked about their climate change denialism, they claim that everything is fine: “We’re meeting and beating our Kyoto targets,” the Prime Minister keeps repeating over and over and over. He might as well be saying, “War is peace! Freedom is slavery! Ignorance is strength!”

Spoiler: They’re not meeting the Kyoto targets. They are doing basically nothing to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

Before this bushfire season, they were working to introduce legislation that would criminalise anyone who protested their inaction on climate change. Oh, and to increase coal mining.

No, I’m not kidding. Our current Prime minister, Scott Morrison,6 once brought a lump of coal to parliament to show that coal is our friend. Nothing to be frightened of.


Morrison claims his government was fully prepared for this apocalyptic summer. Um, tell that to the organisation of retired fire fighter chiefs who tried to get a meeting with the PM to present their plan on how to prepare for the coming bushfire season. You know, this fire season, which many experts predicted would be our worst ever, and is, in fact, our worst ever. He refused to see them. No one in government would meet with them. Because they believe climate change isn’t real and experts are just meanies. Or something.

Guess what? Those fire chiefs were right. How about that? The experts were correct about their area of expertise. Makes you think, doesn’t it?7

I don’t know about you, but I would like governments to make their policy decisions with the guidance of the people who’ve spent their lives studying those particular areas, and not some tool down the pub, who has a feeling because they met this bloke once, who reckoned all these bushfires were being faked, and did you know that Elvis is alive and well and living in Coober Pedy?

Fortunately most Australians know that climate change is real. While our federal government has been obstructionist on fighting climate change, civilians have the highest residential uptake of solar energy in the world. Twenty-one per cent of homes in Australia have solar and that percentage is increasing rapidly.

It makes sense. We are a sunburnt country. We don’t want for lack of sun. Well, except for recently, when the sun’s been almost blotted out by the smoke and turned an eerie orange black, and yes, the UV rays are reduced, which, yay, less skin cancer, but, boo, you kind of need the sun for things to grow and stay alive and for solar energy to work . . .

The smoke from our fires is so immense it’s been blotting out the sun in South America. They’re thousands of kilometres away . . . After leaving Australia, the smoke hit New Zealand first. Sorry, NZ. Here we are once again being the unfortunate neighbour you wish you could avoid. Watch how many Australians will want to move over there to escape this apocalypse. I say send us back home. Just like we did to some of yours.

It’s apocalypse now, but our federal government is more concerned with deporting people it deems undesirable, locking up asylum seekers and denying them adequate health care, and getting rid of gender neutral bathrooms than it is in dealing with these fires. Since the scale of this national disaster became apparent, Prime Minister Morrison has repeatedly shown himself to be more interested in PR and finding someone else to blame than in leadership.

Most of the time I can’t believe this summer is real. I can’t process it. Half a billion animals. Millions of hectares gone.

I don’t know how Australia will recover.

The amount of carbon dioxide released by the burning forests undoes any limited progress made by our spectacular uptake of solar. It also makes “meeting and beating” the Kyoto targets–which we weren’t even close to doing–impossible.

We’ve lost huge swathes of our wildlife and national parks–my favourite walk in the Blue Mountains was burnt out. And if this white Australian of not that many generations is feeling this loss how are the First Nations people feeling?

We’re looking at billions of dollars of property destroyed and much of the agriculture in NSW and Victoria has been gutted.8 We won’t know the full extent of the damage until all the fires are out. We don’t know when all the fires will be out.

Then there’s the long-term health effects. Lungs have been damaged throughout the most populous parts of Australia. Our biggest cities–Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra–have all had extended days of unhealthy air with more to come. Such as today. *points at photo of me in P2 mask above*

And what about our mental health? We’ve only just begun to process. Or have we? Can you process in the middle of a catastrophe? This one isn’t even over yet. We’re probably not yet half way through this horror season . . . There are still hundreds of fires burning. In NSW they’re currently under control but high temperatures and winds are predicted for the weekend. Click here for the Rural Fire Services Fires Near Me map. You can also download it as a map.

People are rallying all over the country with donations pouring in. Folks are offering up their homes to those who’ve lost theirs. It’s heartwarming but it shouldn’t be necessary. It shouldn’t have happened like this. If our government had listened and taken climate change seriously . . .

How do we make sure we never live through a bushfire season like this again?

Do we redirect our armed forces to fire fighting and reforestation? But how can forests grow when there’s no water? Rain isn’t predicted in any meaningful amounts for months and then it’ll likely be floods washing more of the top soil away.

Even if this government was to do a complete turn around and introduce every single one of the Climate Council’s measures–SPOILER: they won’t–having government and industry switch to solar and wind, phasing out coal mining and coal power stations etc. etc., it’s already too late. It won’t bring back the forests, it won’t bring back the wildlife. It won’t shorten the bushfire season or bring back the rain.

The time to do all of that was decades ago. Each successive government, Labor and the LNP, but let’s get real, especially the LNP, have failed us by not doing enough. We have failed us by not fighting harder and louder, because we didn’t believe in climate change, or we did believe, but couldn’t comprehend how soon these experts warnings would come to pass. Most of us humans are terrible at imagining the future.

Tim Flanagan says Australia is committing suicide. He’s right. This apocalypse we’ve created, this armageddon, is slower than those usually imagined by us story tellers. As Omar Sakr puts it, this “apocalypse, having begun long since, might last for the entirety of our lifetimes; we could live through this slow worsening, the poisoning of sky, water, land, and mind as the world heats up, resources become more scarce, and violent conflict spreads.”

Australia’s future is bleak. The land won’t die, not completely, but most of what’s living on it, us humans and quokkas and fingerlime bushes, and all the many other creatures and flora and landscapes that make me love this country, are looking doomed right now.

So, yeah, I’m not okay, and neither is Australia. Neither is the world.

But I’m not giving into despair. We might not be able to save our country, but I can hope we can mitigate some of the damage, learn from this catastrophic bushfire season, so we’re better prepared for the next one. Perhaps we can delay the very worst of this armageddon.

It helps me to do little things to minimise my carbon footprint. I’m reducing my consumption of single-use plastics, using less water,9 only buying clothes that are vintage and/or made from recycled and sustainable textiles,10 planting trees, taking public transport not taxis,11 trying to fly less,12 donating to the organisations that are fighting for a cleaner, better world, here and overseas.

And protesting.

I’ll be at the protest this Friday, 13 January. They’re happening all over the country. In Sydney it starts at 5:30PM at Sydney Town Hall.

I hope to see those of you in Sydney there. Let’s be loud and fight our federal government’s negligence, malfeasance, and incompetence together.

  1. Which I really appreciate. Thank you for caring! No, I’m not returning to my other home of NYC early. []
  2. Well, except there was a grass fire on Bunnerong Road, which is 11k from here. It’s out now. []
  3. Thinking of you, all my lovely Canberra people. []
  4. You can also bid on Shane Warne’s baggy green. Lol. All proceeds go to the Australian Red Cross. There’s fundraising wherever you go. At the Sydney Uni Flames games and at the Operation Ouch show at the Opera House we took the niece to buckets went round. []
  5. Fun facts I have learnt about smoke-filled unhealthy air: it triggers migraines and makes my dermatitis and rosacea worse. Also nauseating. []
  6. It’s Australia, we run through PMs pretty quickly, so that could change by the time I post this. Or it would if parliament was sitting. []
  7. I wish it did because then all the climate change denialists would disappear. I take some hope from op eds by folks who were all in with this government until this catastrophe made them realise that mitigating climate change is more important than tax breaks. But honestly what took them so long? []
  8. Such as the wine industry: smoke taints grapes. Smoke tainted grapes can’t be made into wine. []
  9. We’re on level 2 water restrictions in NSW because of the drought. I’m trying to do better than that. It’s really hard. []
  10. I know, I know, it’s not much of a sacrifice given how much I love vintage clothes. I bought some pieces from Audrey Scarlett because all proceeds are going to WIRES and Victoria’s fireys. []
  11. I know a lot of this isn’t possible for many people. Do what you can. []
  12. But I’m not ready to do what Yael Stone is doing. She’s right. It is unethical to live in both Australia and the USA but I just can’t. Not yet. []

Forensic Science & Lying + Tiny Sneak Peek at Liar

There were two fascinating articles in the New York Times yesterday both of which related strongly to Liar, my novel that comes out in October in both Australia and the USA.

Article the first by Natalie Angier is about a school were forensic science is one of the classes you can take and it’s insanely popular. This is increasingly the case all over the USA:

And though the forensic menu at New Rochelle is unusually extensive, schools everywhere are capitalizing on the subject’s sex appeal to inspire respect for the power of the scientific mind-set generally. According to an informal survey of 285 high school and middle school teachers conducted in 2007 by the National Science Teachers Association, 75 percent replied yes when asked, “Do you or other teachers in your district use forensic investigation in the science classroom?” A third of the respondents said the subject was woven into the regular science curriculum, a quarter listed forensics as a stand-alone course at their school, and one-fifth replied, we do both. Bring out your dead!

I really wish I had known about these classes before I wrote Liar because I definitely would have added forensic science to the curriculum of my invented school. When you read the novel you’ll know why it would have worked so well. Mmmm . . . maggots. You all know this novel is my first mystery/thriller, right?

The other article by Benedict Carey is about new techniques for determining whether people are lying or not. As you can imagine I did a lot of research on why people lie and how lies can be detected when I was writing Liar. The method the article discusses focusses on what people say when questioned not on how they say it:

In part, the work grows out of a frustration with other methods. Liars do not avert their eyes in an interview on average any more than people telling the truth do, researchers report; they do not fidget, sweat or slump in a chair any more often. They may produce distinct, fleeting changes in expression, experts say, but it is not clear yet how useful it is to analyze those.

Nor have technological advances proved very helpful. No brain-imaging machine can reliably distinguish a doctored story from the truthful one, for instance; ditto for polygraphs, which track changes in physiology as an indirect measure of lying.

“Focusing on content is a very good idea,” given the limitations of what is currently being done, said Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

It turns out that details are key:

In several studies, Dr. Colwell and Dr. Hiscock-Anisman have reported one consistent difference: People telling the truth tend to add 20 to 30 percent more external detail than do those who are lying. “This is how memory works, by association,” Dr. Hiscock-Anisman said. “If you’re telling the truth, this mental reinstatement of contexts triggers more and more external details.”

Unsurprisingly that’s one of the things successful liars talk about. Micah, the liar who is the protagonist of my next novel, puts it this way:

Details. They’re the key to lying.

The more detailed you are the more people believe. Not piled on one after another after another—don’t tell too much. Ever. Too many details, that’s too many things that can be checked.

Let them tease the information out of you. Lightly sprinkle it. One detail here, the smell of peanuts roasting; one there, the crunch of gray snow underfoot.

Verisimilitude, one of my English teachers called it. The details that give something the appearance of being real. It’s at the heart of a good lie, a story that has wings.

That’s also a description of writing fiction. There’s a lot of overlap between the techniques of the skilled liar and the skilled story teller. Though the study cited above makes it sound like Micah’s wrong: more details need to be piled on to be really convincing. Most people don’t tell what’s happened to them in the ordered way a story is written. They often spill out too many details that get in the way of the story. Micah’s right, though, that too many details leave you vulnerable cause they can be checked. Tricky situation for the liar.

I wonder if we’ll ever be in a position where we can absolutely know whether someone is lying or not?

The article mentions some of the limitations of the new technique:

It applies only to a person talking about what happened during a specific time — not to individual facts, like, “Did you see a red suitcase on the floor?” It may be poorly suited, too, for someone who has been traumatized and is not interested in talking, Dr. Morgan said. And it is not likely to flag the person who changes one small but crucial detail in a story—“Sure, I was there, I threw some punches, but I know nothing about no knife”—or, for that matter, the expert or pathological liar.

But it’s a huge step forward that more and more law enforcement around the world are shying away from coercion and phony science (i.e. lie detector machines) and looking closely at the words actually said and the context in which they’re said. Who knows maybe one day false arrest and imprisonment will be impossible.

Yes, I woke up in a utopian kind of mood.

Request to mad scientists everywhere!

Some of my writer friends are going barking mad waiting for their books to come out. Especially the newbies. I have decided the only solution is for the world’s mad scientists to drop whatever they’re working on1 and instead invent a brain patch that stops the thinking-bout-next-book-coming-out part of the brain.

Could you do it now-ish, please? Some of my friends are OUT OF CONTROL.

I, of course, am completely sane and rational as I wait for Liar to come out.

  1. Turning us all into twitttering pod people, taking over the world’s supply of mangosteens, turning the lakes of Canada purple etc. etc. []

Flying things seen from our flat

flying foxes
myna birds (alas)
white ibis
rainbow lorikeets
sulphur crested cockatoos

Heard but not seen:


We’ve learned that the flying foxes fly past at the same height as our flat—so we can see and hear them clearly—mostly when it’s raining or there’s low cloud cover. They’re way up high when the skies are clear. So, um, there has been much praying for rain. There weren’t nearly as many flying foxes in Sydney when I was a kid so I never get tired of seeing them.

Same for rainbow lorikeets. They’ve been everywhere over the last week. Yesterday they decided to distract me by landing on our deck directly in front of where I sat writing on our couch. I mean seriously how am I supposed to keep working with them frolicking about in front of me? Here’s a photo Scott took after I called for him to come down from the study and check ’em out:

And here’s a close up:

They hung around for about half an hour. Chirping to each other and to the other lorikeets perched on nearby buildings. Um, no, I got no work done during that time.

Why, yes, I am loving our new digs. It’s amazing how having a view changes everything.

And, I kid you not, another flock of ’em flew past just as I was about to publish this. Their brilliant greens, reds, blues and yellows even more intense against the grey sky. Leaving this place is going to be such a wrench. I want to stay forever.

Zombies! + book divas + banned books week

It is with great sadness that I realise I haven’t posted about zombies in ages. That’s SO wrong. Fortunately, Cecil Castellucci sent me a link to this science article all about how we all have an inner zombie:

[S]tarting in the late 1960s, psychologists and neurologists began to find evidence that our self-aware part is not always in charge. Researchers discovered that we are deeply influenced by perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and desires about which we have no awareness. Their research raised the disturbing possibility that much of what we think and do is thought and done by an unconscious part of the brain—an inner zombie.

Notice that it’s not an inner uni***n; it’s an inner zombie. I think that proves once and for all time that zombies are more powerful, interesting and make for way better metaphors than smelly old uni***ns.

Take that, Holly Black!

I am now off to Michigan to talk about the glories of zombies fairies with the locals. Posting may be erratic for the next few days. Though I will, as usual, do my valiant best to post every day.

I will also be popping in to chat at Book Divas this week: 29 September through to 6 October. So if you’re a member or want to join do go check it out. I will answer any question you might have. Any question at all!

Today, or, oops, yesterday is also the first day of Banned Books Week. Maureen Johnson has a fabulous post about it over at YA for Obama, with which I agree entirely. On some topics she’s completely wrong but when it comes to banning books and zombies you can totally trust her.

Go forth and read a banned book!

I wish I had studied maths

I stopped studying maths in Year 7. Before that I’d made a bit of an effort but in my first year of high school (in New South Wales high school starts in Year 7) I downed tools. I was bored, annoyed, and couldn’t see the point so I quit. Technically I kept going to maths class—it was compulsory until the end of Year 10—but I failed each year and was never made to repeat. I didn’t learn anything new after Year 6.

At the time I thought it was excellent that I could get away with it. In class I read novels under the desk. I never studied and finished my maths exams quicker than anyone else cause I guessed all the answers. Thus giving me more time to read novels.

Now I regret it. My regret is very very very big. Because now I don’t have the underpinnings to understand even the most basic mathematics and science. (I also stopped studying science very early.) Writing the Magic or Madness trilogy was a nightmare. It’s very difficult to write a character who is a mathematical prodigy when you yourself are a mathematical moron.

My current regret, however, is fuelled by the Rethinking Basketball blog. Quentin who writes it is a numbers boy. He has all sorts of fancy formulas and statistics to map the performances of different WNBA players and teams. Like how to take defence into account when figuring out who the Most Valuable Player should be.

I understand almost none of it and that fact fills me with despair. If I could go back in time I would tell the bored and cranky twelve-year-old me that maths would come in handy later on and I should really pay attention to the nice man. (My Year 7 maths teacher was a sweetie, who did not deserve me as a student.)

But plenty of people—including my parents—were telling me that at the time and I ignored them. I probably would have ignored the adult me as well. Sigh.

So it’s now more than a little bit ironic that I am in the position of telling twelve year olds that they should pay attention in maths class. But you really really should. Who knows when or where it will come in handy. But trust me, it will. Don’t be as stupid as I was.

This has been a public service announcement. You are most welcome.

Itchy grossness

There’s a fascinating article in The New Yorker, “The Itch” by Atul Gawande. It’s all about what causes itching, how we experience it, and what happens when it goes horribly wrong. HORRIBLY WRONG.

The case the article revolves around is so gross that I had to stop reading for awhile. Me, who is a connousieur of grossness, who is proud of how gross my story in the First Kiss anthology is. And yet I feel compelled to share. Since I am a good person I will share after the cut.

WARNING: If you are easily grossed out DO NOT continue reading. If you have ever had shingles DO NOT continue reading. I am not kidding about this warning.

Continue reading

Dingo urine saves lives

Tasmanian marsupial lives that is. Scientists back home have discovered that marsupials really really really don’t like dingo pee. They avoid it like the plague which means that farmers and the forestry industry can stop poisoning wildlife in order to protect crops. Spray the wee around and the critters stay away and the crops grow unmolested. Everybody wins.

Apparently it also makes a really lovely perfume.1

  1. No, not really. []


This post comes to you because I casually mentioned that my insomnia had been cured and immediately got an avalanche of letters saying, “Tell! How? I must know!”

So now I tell.

It’s not easy and it doesn’t work for everyone. In fact, the sleep doctor who put me on this regime said that the vast majority of his clients cannot stick to it and thus never find out whether it works for them or not. That’s because it’s very difficult for most people. Especially those with children. On top of that there are a (small) set of people who are addicted to their lack of sleep and the drama of it, but cannot admit that to themselves, and thus cannot undertake a systematic change of their sleep habits.

With this regime you have to change your sleep habits and make them regular, which is really really hard:

  • You are only allowed to sleep in bed—no reading or writing or anything else.
  • You’re not allowed to sleep during the day. Not even the teeniest, tiniest nap.
  • You go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning—to start with make them at least five hours apart.
  • An hour before you go to bed have a hot bath. This is to raise your core body temp which will then drop in the hour before you go to bed. If you don’t have a bath do some not-too-vigorour exercise for half an hour to raise your temperature. Don’t take a shower because that will wake you up.
  • You need to get up in the first hour of dawn and go out and walk or run around in the sunshine for at least 15 minutes. This is to set your something or other. Can’t remember what you call it.
  • If you can’t sleep when you go to bed, get up, and do something until you get tired again. Then go back to bed, if again you can’t sleep, get up, and do something else. This can go on until it’s time to get up. You then have to get up cause you’re not allowed to sleep during the day.

There you have it: that’s what cured my insomnia. If you stick to it it’s very likely you’ll be sleeping again.

As I said, though, sticking to it is the hard part. Did I mention how difficult it is?

I was in the ideal situation to try it: I was living with people who were not disturbed by my getting up at 5AM every morning, who were also not disturbed by my being up half the night, and my being shitty all day long when I couldn’t take a nap to cope with not having slept the night before.1

I was also a research fellow at a university where I had no fixed office hours and taught no classes. My duties were to research and write and publish. Undertaking this regime is a lot harder if you work nine to five or even longer hours and if you have children, pets or other responsibilities.

On the other hand, if your insomnia is really bad anyways this regime is probably not a whole lot worse than what you’re already going through.

When I started out I went to bed at midnight and got up at 5AM. The first week I did not sleep more than an hour or two during designated sleeping hours, but after that my sleeping crept up to three, four and then the full five hours. Then I expanded my sleeping to six.

I stuck to the regime for a few more months. First I experimented with not doing the bath thing and was still able to sleep. Then I let myself sleep longer than six hours and miss the dawn walk. When that didn’t affect my sleep I started going to to bed when I felt like it not at midnight every single night. Eventually I was back to normal.

Now—almost seven years later—I sleep fine. I do occasionally have sleepless nights. But they don’t freak me out the way they used to. I’m not afraid of insomnia any more—I’ve had long bouts of it since I was a kid. I now know what to do if an extended bout happens again. It’s a good feeling.

I think part of what used to happen when I was locked into crap sleep patterns was that I’d be so wound up about not sleeping that it made everything worse. I’d lie in bed for hours waiting for sleep to come, getting angrier, and more depressed, and less likely to sleep. At the same time, in a weird way, I was addicted to not sleeping. It felt romantic to be up in the early hours writing when the rest of the world was sleeping. I was convinced that I wrote my best stuff when I couldn’t sleep. I even thought my red eyes and pinched insomnia face were romantic. After all lots of famous writers have struggled with sleep. Writers are meant to be miserable and tortured, aren’t they?

Having learned how to beat my insomnia, I also beat those stupid romantic ideas out of myself. None of my fiction written while suffering from insomnia has ever been published. All my published novels are the product of a happy well-slept author.

  1. Thank you, Jan and John! []

Gah! We cannot wins!

All my life I have stayed out of the sun, diligently following the instructions of the anti-skin cancer campaigns. I have slipped on a long-sleeved shirt, slopped on sunscreen, and slapped on a hat.1 As a result (unlike quite a few people back home) I’ve never had any skin cancer scares. But it turns out that I’ve been putting myself at risk of rickets:

MILLIONS of Australians are exposing themselves to bone disease, fractures, diabetes and cancers by failing to get enough vitamin D, a crucial nutrient produced when skin is exposed to sunlight.

Experts have warned the highly acclaimed “Slip Slop Slap” campaign may have been taken too far by a nation terrified of skin cancer.

So I’ve avoided skin cancer but now my bones are going to spontaneously fracture? Fabulous. What to do? Apparently there’s a very “fine line between getting enough sun exposure for adequate vitamin D levels but not too much to cause DNA damage that leads to skin cancer.” My cause of action is clear then: I should go out in the sun more but not too much more. Um, where exactly is that thin line?

I shouldn’t be surprised. This is how the world works, innit? Everything is more complicated and tricky than it seems at first. Everything is a balance. Nothing is black and white. Still, I quite liked having one certainty: that minimising my exposure to the sun was good for me.

Le sigh. And of course here I am stuck in a place with absolutely no sunlight. Pass me those Vitamin D tablets, please? Thank you.

  1. That campaign turned me into a life-long hat addict. []

Sleep and dreams

I am fascinated by dreams and sleep and how they work and how little we know about them. According to Science Times, the New York Times weekly science section, we know a lot more than we used to.

According to the Benedict Carey reporting for the Times insomnia “makes you more reckless, more emotionally fragile, less able to concentrate and almost certainly more vulnerable to infection.”

I so knew all of those ones too. Though I’m shocked they left out accident prone. I have had much insomnia in my life and way to make the accidents! Sheesh. I’m so glad my insomnia has been cured.

Apparently the whole thing about “sleeping on it” to figure out a problem is totally true. I so knew that one too! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to bed completely freaked out about a plot problem and woken up knowing how to fix it. Or at least how to get to where I can fix it.

I also got gazillions of story ideas from my dreams and nightmares. And when I don’t sleep I’m buggered.

Pretty much all the articles in this week’s Science Times are worth a squiz.

Though sadly there’s no article about how 99% of people should be banned from telling other people their dreams. See, it’s not that dreams are boring; it’s that most people are really boring at relating their dreams. I had a friend—back home in Sydney—who was brilliant at telling her dreams. I looked forward to it!

Do any of you find your dreams useful? And not just for writing. Please to tell. But, no telling of the dreams! Boring dream recounting is verbotten!

A real life Reason Cansino

Reason Cansino, the protag of my Magic or Madness trilogy, is somewhat of a mathematical prodigy, but she pales in comparison to Terence Tao:

By age two, he had learned to read. At 9, he attended college math classes. At 20, he finished his Ph.D.

Now 31, he has grown from prodigy to one of the world’s top mathematicians.

. . .

“I always liked numbers,” he said.

A 2-year-old Terry Tao used toy blocks to show older children how to count. He was aquick with language and used the blocks to spell words like “dog” and “cat.”

. . .

At age 5, he was enrolled in a public school, and his parents, adminstrators and teachers set up an individualized program for him. He proceeded through each subject at his own pace, quickly accelerating through several grades in maths and science while remaining closer to his age group in other subjects. In English classes, for instance, he became flustered when he had to write essays.

“I never really got the hang of that,” he said. “These very vague, undefined questions. i always liked situations where there were very clear rules of what to do.”

Assigned to write a story about what was going on at home, Terry went from room to room and made detailed lists of the contents.

I love that last image of the boy writing lists, rather than a story. Though, of course, depending on how he ordered them, they could well wind up being one. Harper’s Index is jampacked with stories. Many of them deeply disturbing.

I can’t imagine Reason making lists in quite that way (though in the early chapters of Magic or Madness she is pretty methodical as she notes the contents of the rooms of her grandmother’s house) but I can totally see her using blocks to teach other kids to count. And if she were to survive the last book of the trilogy1 I see her going on to be a mathematician. Maybe she’d be working on primes just like Mr Tao. They do sing to her.

The Times article on Tao is a lovely portrait of someone who hasn’t been wrecked by being a prodigy. Nice to have a counter to all those stories of prodigies who crash and burn.

  1. Do not ask for I will not tell you. []

Atlantic City? No, thanks. (updated)

I don’t want to rubbish a whole city, especially when I was only there for a few hours, but Atlantic City is an erky perky bleah of a place. Friends warned me it was a shithole—I had no idea they were being kind. It’s ugly, full of the most hideous buildings ever built and populated by zombie gamblers, who are served by an army of twelve-year-old incompetent staff. Once you’re inside one of the casinos it’s almost impossible to get out again. All signs lead to more gambling areas. I’m convinced that hell will be nothing but Atlantic City casinos.

This is heresy for an Australian, but, I hate gambling. I love cards and I’ll bet on them, but not with money. Never for money. Betting with money turns people into glassy-eyed zombies, and call me old-fasthioned, but I prefer my zombies in Romero films, thank you very much.

So why were we in Atlantic City? To attend the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers book fair, which other than its location in a hellspawn casino, was a lot of fun. We met the fabulous Penguin reps, Holly and Todd, who looked after us excellently well and told great publishing stories; we hung out with fellow YA writers, Maureen Johnson and Melissa Kantor; we both signed a bunch of our books, Peeps and Magic or Madness, and we snaffled up many free books. The gems of my pile—other than Maureen’s and Melissa’s books—were:

Small Steps by Louis Sachar, which is the sequel to Holes! Woo hoo! I have the sequel to Holes and you don’t! Ha! Ha! Ha!

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. I adore Flannery. He’s frequently interviewed back home about science and enviromental issues and is the smartest, most interesting, and clearest explainers of such issues I’ve ever heard. He also writes really, really well. I can’t wait to read this one, not least because I know it’s going to help me understand what happened with hurricane Katrina.

Today, we go back to New Jersey:

Elizabeth Main Library
11 S. Broad St., Elizabeth
New Jersey

We’ll probably read and we’ll definitely chat and generally be our entertaining selves. We’ve only done one library event before but it was fabulous, so I’m really looking forward to this.

Oh, and if you’re from Atlantic City? My condolences.

Update: I am very stupid. I wrote a blog entry about casinos, but my spam filter is set to nuke any comments that contain the word “casino”. I apologise to anyone who had their comment nuked. You can post now. Though given the vast tide of casino spam I get your comment will go through to moderation, which I truly rooly honestly will check. Rooly soon.

What was Really Found

Remember that recent study that got all the publicity about overweightness and obesity not being such a big deal? Well, fabulous science writer, Rebecca Skloot, explains it all in a way that makes sense. Thank you!

My maths and science education sort of petered out in about year seven, so I’m always incredibly grateful for anyone who can help me understand such matters.